Earlier this year, scholars announced the discovery of what might be the oldest known copy of the Gospel of Mark (see here and here). A fragment of Mark’s book was found on ancient papyrus used to create a mummy mask. While more research is needed to date the fragment conclusively, the find is an exciting one. It also provides a good opportunity to talk about the book we call the Holy Bible. RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with me to talk about the canonicity of Scripture. In this series of interviews, we’ll talk about divine inspiration, how the major branches of Christendom view Scripture, and what challenges the Bible faces from skeptics.
The discovery of the Gospel of Mark fragment is thrilling, but it got me wondering about the canonicity of Scripture. How did the biblical canon that we use today come about?
It’s a great question and, of course, it’s also a controversial one. The branches of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism, and Protestantism) debate this topic. And there are also challenges from the outside. For example, the Gnostics wanted to include four alternative gospels—the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Peter—in the canon. So the question is what rule or mark of authenticity includes some books and excludes others?
I think at the heart of these questions about Scripture—whether about the canonicity or biblical inerrancy—is our view of biblical inspiration. Within Christianity the basic idea is that the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture. Now we have to present this idea in measured tones. We should not picture the apostles or the prophets (for the Old Testament) going into a trance and writing out things like zombies. The Scriptures still reflect the humanness of the authors, their education level, their vocabulary, their knowledge. Rather, the Holy Spirit superintended the writing. He inspired the authors, caused them to write, and kept them within measure.
This is not unlike how I might write a piece and you might edit it. You might say, “Ken, you have to cut this part out or how about if we include this here?” That’s a rough analogy.
So that’s something we editors have in common with the Holy Spirit?
I knew the RTB editorial team would like that one, but it’s not a bad analogy. Inspiration is not dictation; the Spirit supervises the individual, but it’s that person’s vocabulary and writing style. Obviously, Paul’s vocabulary is much more advanced than Peter’s. So out of this view of inspiration come implications for canonicity.
What are some of the differences amongst the branches of Christendom regarding canonicity?
In the classical Roman Catholic view the Bible is essentially the church’s book. The church (meaning the apostles) wrote it and canonized it. The church put a stamp of approval on some books, but rejected others. Then Protestants, in Catholic thinking, came along and rejected the Catholic Church but wanted the canon.
But in the classical Protestant view the apostles wrote the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The church didn’t canonize it as though the text were uninspired until the church put its thumbprint on it. Rather, the church played a much more modest role of recognizing the canon. Inspiration is inherent in the books themselves; it’s not something the church adds to the books.
How did the church fathers recognize the canon?
New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce identified four major criteria for determining canonicity. I refer to them in chapter 7 of A World of Difference. The first one is apostolic authority. Did an apostle, or a close associate of the apostles, write the book? Second is antiquity—does it emerge from the apostolic era? All of the Gnostic gospels came out of the third or fourth century, long after the apostolic era. Third is orthodoxy—does the book have fidelity to apostolic doctrine? Does it teach what the apostles taught?
And then, fourth, is catholicity—did the book enjoy a universal acceptance by the church or, in the case of the Old Testament, by the Jewish people? However, with regard to catholicity, Protestants would insist that the church isn’t giving the Bible anything that it doesn’t already have. Rather, the church simply applied these principles and recognized the inspiration. So, again, inspiration stands behind canonicity and canonicity is an implication of inspiration. The books written by the apostles were assumed to be inspired.
Sometimes Catholics will assert that the councils affirmed this assumption. And it is true that the councils, particularly the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage near the end of the fourth century, were helpful in settling questions about certain New Testament books. For example, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were all initially questioned (Greek: antilegomena, meaning “spoken against”) and had to undergo investigation before being recognized at these councils as canon.
I recently re-read 2 and 3 John and I did wonder at them being included. They’re just these short personal letters. What made the church decide to accept things like that?
Part of it, particularly at Carthage (AD 397), was that the church was still trying to make sure they could tie 2 and 3 John to the apostle John, same thing with 2 Peter and even James and Hebrews at one point. I think it’s pretty easy to see why Hebrews came under scrutiny. It certainly seems to bear all of the marks of an inspired work yet we don’t know who wrote it. Was it Barnabas or Apollos? Was it somebody else?
Again, the church didn’t grant inspiration to these books, rather it did investigative work and finally recognized that they were indeed inspired and, therefore, meant to be in the canon. I think in one sense we can say that the church played a role not in granting inspiration but in negating. It was really more of a negative role.
Next week we’ll continue this series with a look at the Old Testament apocryphal literature (also called deuterocanonical books). The Catholics accept them as canon and the Orthodox expand on the Catholic canon, but Protestants reject additional books—how does that all play out?